Sunday, April 3, 2016

SUNRISE OVER KANYANUMARI

Tuesday started early. I would even say that Tuesday started in the middle of the night for us. At 3:30am my room bell rang. It was Samson letting me know that our plans to leave the hotel at 4:00am had been changed a little and that we were going to leave in about 15 minutes. Fantastic. Who needs sleep anyhow? Our reason for waking early was to make it down the very southernmost tip of India to experience the sunrise over the ocean and we needed a few hours for travel time. I was thankful for the ability to sleep nearly anywhere. 

Like the last two posts I will rely mostly on photos to transport you on my journey; however, I feel there is some entertainment value in a little anecdotal commentary regarding this adventure. I have become rather accustom to being watched or stared at as I travel about India. I am a minority here. My fair skin garners attention. Just reporting the facts here. However, something odd happened out on the pier at Kanyakumari that morning. I was sitting rather uncomfortably on the sea-dampened boulders waiting for the sun to make its grand entrance into our day when all of the sudden a little boy was placed directly next to me. He looked up at me with about as much bewilderment as I felt, and before I knew it the rest of his family had crowded around us while someone from their party took our photo. A few clicks later the photographer joined the group while another from the party stepped out to replace him behind the camera. It seems they were bored with waiting for the sun to rise so they resorted to photographing the next amusing thing in sight… me, the white girl. I laughed it off and joked to my traveling companions that they should hang a sign about my neck saying “10 rupees for 1 photo” and we might be able to buy ourselves breakfast on the profits. What I didn’t expect was that had we actually followed through with that plan we probably could have bought lunch and dinner, too! I lost count after about six groups of people asked to take their photo with me. Some stood awkwardly next to me while others boldly asked for poses and diplomatic handshakes, much to the amusement of my companions. It was the oddest experience for me. At first it was funny, but after a while it a little irksome.  I guess what goes around comes around. It isn’t like I haven’t stopped to take pictures of the locals myself. 

(I have about 300 photos of the sun rising... be glad you only get a small handful of them!) 











THE FALLS AT TIRPARAPPU ON THE KOTHYAR RIVER

Once again, I will say very little about this stop on the journey and just let the photos do the talking.  

A view from above the falls.

This is the area where laundry was being done and baths were being taken by the locals. (The first picture posted on the blog "Five to eight days.." was taken here.)

The river we took an evening boat ride on.

The evening boat ride.

Ashwin.

It was a challenge to grab a photo of Samson when he wasn't behind his camera. 

Playing in the falls. 

Below the falls.

Ashwin and I at the fall. 


PADMANABHAPURAM PALACE

(Say that ten times fast, or… once.)

** This post (as well as the next two planned posts) is a bit of a “back-tracking” post. **

While down in the deep south for the wedding, I had the pleasure of joining my friends for a little sight-seeing. I will keep the commentary brief on these posts as they will mostly be photos. Keep an eye out for the photo captions to get a little more in-sight regarding the commentary.

What I do want to mention briefly is the mode of travel during our sight-seeing adventures. Samson, Ashwin, Noble and I borrowed Sunil’s car for all our cross-country travels. This little steed was quite a trooper! With small wheels and a small, but resilient engine that little car faithfully took us over vale and hill and down roads that made the American farmyard driveway look like a high-speed raceway! There were a few occasions that I thought we would have to get out and carry that poor little car up the hill, but she staunchly trudged on at Samon’s gentle prodding. Only once did she give out and threw up her throttle cable in disgust as if to demand a rest break. Again, with Samon’s coercion we were back on the road within mins. I would also like to commend Samon for his ability to complete u-turns in spaces that I didn’t think a mosquito could make a u-turn in… and trust me when I say he had plenty of opportunity to practice. (I do believe that is, without a doubt, the most u-turns I have ever experience in a three-day period!) Thanks to Google maps for guiding us to almost everywhere we wanted to go, and to Noble for being fairly accurate in his ability to read Google maps in time to direct Samson’s driving.

Our adventures started out Sunday morning, shortly after arriving in Sunil’s home town. After a quick freshening up and breakfast at Sunil’s house, we headed out to our first destination: Padmanabhapuram Palace in Tamil Nadu. The only thing I really know about this palace is that it is one of the oldest palaces in India. I will let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Part of the palace entrance courtyard. The main entrance is to the left. 
The main entrance and courtyard. 
35 rupees for an Indian Adult. 300 rupees for a foreign adult. Nope... no discrimination here! 

An interior courtyard. People, the palace was a ridiculous maze of buildings, walkways, interior passages, and courtyards! I wish I had been issued a map for reference. 

The view of another interior courtyard from the two-story banquet hall which was built to feed 2,000 people at a time. 

Interior passage leading to goodness knows where! 

I wasn't given much information on what this particular building was. We did not have access to all the buildings. 

This is the foreigners guesthouse. 


A detail from inside the banquet hall. 

Yet another courtyard. 

A detail looking through a palace wall. 

The king's bed. I hope he at least got a mattress to go with it! 

This is a reception hall where the maharajahs  met to conduct meetings. 

So much intricate detailing on all the wood work. This is from the ceiling. 

The four amigos. (L to R: myself, Noble, Samson, Ashwin)


Saturday, April 2, 2016

WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU...

My last morning in India started earlier than I had hoped. I never sleep all that well the night before a big day of travel. At 5:30am I finally decided to roll out of bed and into the script of the morning’s departure preparations. This is always a dreaded day for me. I know it’s not going to end smoothly whenever it finally does come to an end; jet lagged, tired, and most definitely uncertain about whether or not I am really ready to be back in the US.

Historically this day, my departure-from-India day, has always had some measure of unplanned excitement. In 2008 it was a delay at the end of the runway for an unconscious passenger (the one sitting next to me) to be evacuated from the plane. In 2013 it was an epic amount of emotions built-up after an extended stay that made simple cognitive processing seem nearly impossible and a middle of the night visit with a friend under the bridge near the airport. In 2015 it was a missed flight out of Chennai. This year I had everything lined up for a smooth exit. I had planned to say my goodbyes to my friends at rehab at 8am as they all convened for work and then catch the bus at Bagayam to the New Bus Stand where I would catch another bus to Chennai. In Chennai, I had arranged to meet with friends and spend the day with them. They had graciously agreed to drop me at the airport in the evening for my 9:45pm flight to Dubai.

The first few steps in my plan were executed nearly flawlessly. I didn’t even cry (very much) when leaving rehab. I made it safely to the New Bus Stand where my next step was to fine an A/C express bus to Chennai. (I was given explicit instructions on this as well as where to find the buses that fit that criteria.) Despite the fact that the buses were not where I was told they would be, I was successful in finding a choice bus for my three hour travel to Chennai. I was actually pretty proud of myself for finding such a dandy bus. Once I manage to wangle myself and two backpacks onto the bus, I took a seat next to a pleasant looking young girl. We exchanged quick smiles and proceeded to sit together in silence. What I didn’t know is that I had sat down next to my little guardian angel.

Now, all bus drivers in India seem to drive like maniacs; but this particular driver seemed to be on a mission to beat everyone else to Chennai… even those that had already arrived there. Driving his beast of a bus like it was a Smart car; we zipped in and between all manner of lorries, motorcycles, buses, and cars for about an hour and a half. That is when our driver’s familiar harsh and sudden braking ended with the nauseating sound of crunching metal. Our bus had attempted to eat the trunk of a very small car. Almost immediately the back two-thirds of the bus rushed to huddle upfront at the windshield to assess the damage done. I had been lightly dozing up until this point, but was wide awake now.

Knowing that I wouldn’t be of any assistance up in the chaos, I remained in my seat and turned to my fellow passenger and asked “so…. What now?” She smiled and said we would be delayed. You think? I got out my phone and sent a quick text to my friends waiting in Chennai to let them know I would be delayed, but that I was ok. From what I could tell, no one had been injured in the collision. The occupants of the car we had incapacitated were at the side of the bus yelling wildly at the bus driver. No, they didn’t seem injured at all. Given the unknown wait time and/or remedy for the problem we had created it seemed like a good time to try to conqueror that stubborn game of spider solitaire I hadn’t been able to complete. So there I sat; somewhere between Vellore and Chennai on a hot-and-getting-hotter bus whiling away the time.

I think it was at this point that I surprised myself by realizing I was completely calm and relatively unconcerned. My bus had just collided with a car. In the middle of nowhere. In India. I had no clue what the standard procedure was for this sort of thing. Did we eventually just drive away? Did we wait for the police? Did someone call for a backup bus? Is there even a standard procedure for something like this? Shouldn’t I be panicked just a little bit? Or concerned or something? And why can’t I win this stupid spider solitaire game?

I asked the girl next to me what would happen next. She didn’t seem to know at first, but after a while told me that it would seem we would eventually catch another bus. I asked her if I could just stay with her until we made it to Chennai to which she graciously agreed. After about 30-45 minutes, she abruptly and quickly motioned to me to get off the bus as we would be boarding the bus that has just stopped next to us. (For the record, it is incredibly difficult to quickly disembark from a tight bus with two backpacks.) My new friend and I quickly stepped on board as our new bus began to move off towards Chennai. The bus we boarded was simply another regular route bus to Chennai that was full of its own passengers. There I was with my two bags, smashed in the aisle of a bus packed with two bus-loads worth of people… standing. So much for catching an A/C express bus. I pretty much found myself on the exact opposite bus of what I was instructed to ride. I suspected that this wasn’t an express bus either; my suspicions were confirmed when we turned off the main highway at the first little town. Oy! This was going to be a longer trip than I had expected.

About twenty minutes down the road I thought to ask my friend if this bus was actually Chennai bound. She laughed and told me it was. Phew! At least I would make it to my final destination at some point. Eventually a seat opened up and was offered to me. I gladly accepted and squished myself and my bags into my allocated space. Not comfortable, but I wasn’t too bothered by that. I was safe and on my way to where I needed to go.

Traffic accidents in India can be fairly damaging to life and limb. This is not surprising given the lack of traffic rules implemented and obeyed. They say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Yes, I might be stronger as a result of this odd hiccup in my plans (seems it is taking more and more to rattle me when traveling in India), but for myself I would like to add that what doesn’t kill me serves to remind me that I am covered in prayers and that God is continually safeguarding my life. I spent a good portion of the rest of my trip to Chennai thanking my Savior for the health and safety He has given to me during this and other trips to India, as well as for the peace He has given me during the myriad of strange and unknown circumstances I have encountered along the way. Praise Him for His mercies, they are new every morning!
A morning at the ocean (see following post for more details)

Friday, April 1, 2016

FIVE TO EIGHT DAYS AND NO IMMEDIATE ESCAPE

I'm about to get real with y'all, so bear with me. When I first arrive here in India I'm ecstatic. I will tell you I'm thrilled to be back. I will say that in some ways it feels like coming home. (Home to my home-away-from-home, that is.) But those are little white lies. 

Evening laundry at the swimming hole.
If I was to truly being honest with you, I'd tell you that I feel like I'm drowning in it all. I feel like I am only pretending to love it here when really I just want to sleep in my own bed, eat my own boring food, find some relief from the heat, and take a “real” shower. I play the part of a lover (of India), and I think I play it pretty darn well. And while I walk around faking it, I am soul-searching within myself to find the answer to this question: why in the Heaven’s name do I keep coming back here? I wonder if the lies I tell myself (and you) are worth telling anymore, or is it time for me to say my final farewell to this strange place. I wonder if I'm really doing any good by coming back to spend time at rehab. I wonder if my efforts to make a difference would be better off spent somewhere else. I feel frustrated, discouraged, and agitated. None of it feels like anything resembling a home to me. 

The street directly outside a palace.
Rice... its what's for dinner!
Those big brown eyes.. 
And then something happens. A nebulous corner is somehow and somewhere turned. I don't know if it is the final stages of jet lag finally wearing off. Or maybe it is culture shock that I'm finally and fully recovering from. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it happens somewhere between day five and eight. Putting "it" into words is difficult, but I'm going to try. I think “it” is a subconscious recognition and resignation that there is no escape. 

Let me try to explain a little. Where I come from, when this sort of heat and humidity are commonplace, there is an escape somewhere close. An air conditioned house. A climate controlled restaurant. A cool breeze from the car's air conditioner. We easily escape from the discomfort the climate imposes upon us. That is not so here. Yes, there are fans in most homes and some cars have air conditioners, but by and large I am forced to live in it- to deal with it. There is no escaping the heat. 

The presence of poverty is yet another element that can't be escaped so easily. In my home town there are areas known for their higher population of homeless people; there are districts that are considered "lower income" areas. Poverty does exists in my town, but if I keep driving (in the air conditioned car that I own) a few blocks I am no longer acutely aware of its presence. The same cannot be said here in India. There is no escaping the reality of poverty. 

The dust and dirt are everywhere. The trees are dusty green, literally. The floors, though frequently swept are perpetually dusty. I am perpetually dusty! There are no "air tight" spaces where the dust and the dirt cannot go. Back home the air can be considered clean and fresh on any given day and even more so after the rains, but here the air is thick with dust and after it rains it just feels muggy. There is no escaping the grit and grime. 

One-stop shopping.
The girls next door (from Sunil's home)
Epic India
Back home I have found a myriad of ways to "escape" any given current reality I wish not to address at the moment. I turn on the air conditioner (or more likely in my case, I turn on my heater). I go out with friends. I drive down a different street. I binge-watch some Netflix show. I go to the gym or for a run. I never seem to have difficulty escaping something that makes me uncomfortable; physically, mentally, or emotionally. I can float along easily with little to no inconvenience imposed upon my well-being. I am not forced to open my eyes wide to the harsh realities of the real world. I have an easy life. The things that do bother me are trivial and embarrassingly ridiculous in light of the global picture: my internet crapped out for two minutes and I can’t stream my show, the ice cream shop next door is taking forever to open, my car needs to be refueled… again, my electric blanket doesn’t warm up fast enough for me, etc. 
 
Friends stopping for some tender coconut refreshment.
In my 'hood...
So yes, when I first arrive in India, I am drowning. I’m drowning in a sea of harsh reality and no one is throwing me a life preserver… because no one has a life preserver to throw to me. I cannot escape quickly. I need to start treading water quickly if I am to stay afloat. My eyes are forced wide-open; they are forced to take in the real world around me and to deal with it. To be fully present. To live it. And come day five… or maybe eight… my ability to tread water becomes less survival and more surrender. I surrender to the fact that life is raw, it is harsh, it is heart-wrenching, it is hard; but, oh friend, it so incredibly beautiful when I am obligated to face it head-on and live it richly and deeply. I embrace the fact that there is no escape, and just start swimming.

Perhaps it is easy for me to pen these words because in a matter of 36 hours I will be leaving this strange world. I will be taking an escape from the heat, the poverty, the dust, and the realities of life outside my comfort zone. I exist here knowing that for me there actually is an “escape route” at some point in my future. Regardless of the circumstances, I know this: I am getting closer to an answer for my question about why I keep coming back. One of the reasons I keep coming back is because I greatly value experiencing the splendor of raw life. (Of course, coming back to visit friends ranks among the top reasons for returning.) I feel so fortunate and richly blessed to have the opportunity to make the memories and friends that I’ve made here in India over the past years. If it is God’s will for me to return I’m just fine with that. I am not ready to say my final farewell to this land that offers no immediate escape. 

Gathering the day's water from the source down the street. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A MALAYALI WEDDING IN TAMIL NADU

I’m going to start this post with a quick lesson in Southern Indian geography for any one listening in at home. India, much like the US, is divided into various states; the two southern most states being Kerala (on the west coast) and Tamil Nadu (on the east coast). Unlike the US, each state has its own language and cultural nuances. In Kerala the language spoken is Malayalam with a Malayali cultural divergence; in Tamil Nadu the language is Tamil with a Tamil cultural divergence. The wedding I attended this past weekend happened right on the southernmost border of the two states; thus a Malayali wedding in the state of Tamil Nadu.

As a result of this border-riding wedding, there were aspects of both cultures throughout the wedding. I will give a brief order of events throughout the day as well as a few anecdotal comments, but most of this post will be photos.

My party and I arrived early at the church venue the morning of the wedding. Not knowing exactly what was going on, I wandered around taking photos and entertaining guests with my white skin and blonde hair. Soon enough Sobah, the bride, arrived with her entourage of people who quickly escorted her off to the side of the church; however, not before allowing her to greet the token white girl (for which I felt very honored). Sunil, the groom, arrived within ten minutes with his entourage of people.

The church venue

Sobah and her family arriving at the church
Apparently not everyone was thrilled about attending a wedding on this Monday morning! ;) 
Sunil arriving, flanked by his two sisters and their children.
What happened next, as far as I can tell, was a cultural gesture of agreement between the two families. Sobah’s family gathered to the left of the church yard while Sunil’s family gathered to the right. When given the signal, both families converged in the center as Sunil exchanged a handshake, bouquet, and of course his infectious smile with the bride’s family. After this, Sobah’s family brought her to Sunil and the two of them together entered the church with the guests closely following behind.

The exchange
The groom looking rather dapper as he awaits the presentation of his bride. 
My new friend, Jacob, Sunil's nephew. 
After we had all taken our seats, the ceremony commenced. Save for two of the nine (yes, nine!) songs that were sung, the whole ceremony was in Malayalam so I had no clue what was said or going one. It wasn’t too hard to figure out the general format as it seemed to be fairly similar to many of the weddings I’ve attended in English. At the end of the ceremony, the guest left the church the new couple at the alter with the officiants, family, and photographers. I sneaked myself up to the front and covertly began to take my own photos, trying not to get in the way of the official photographers. After about ten minutes, the official photographer stepped aside and gestured for me to take his spot at front and center. Apparently I wasn’t as covert as I had thought I was, nevertheless I was delighted for the chance to get some closer photos. I began to shoot, and almost immediately met with shaking heads, fingers and “no’s.” Wondering what I had done wrong, I sheepishly began to back away until I realized that feeling the scene was causing even more commotion. Confused and mildly frantic I looked towards Samson who had joined me to take photos. He smiled, shook his head, laughed, and interpreted their words, “No, they want you in the photo!” Yeah, not covert at all. I obliged them, yet not without some embarrassment.

The new couple with the officiants.

I promised I would post the picture with my full saree... so here it is. (Hair "open" and all) 
With Sunil's mother and sister with her children
Sunil's eldest sister with her daughter, Jessica.






The beautiful bride
Sunil looking sharp (and serious)
Off to the first reception!
From the church, we all headed to the first of two receptions: the bride’s reception. I guess technically it would be the groom’s reception as it was the party hosted by Sobah’s family to receive Sunil into their family with their friend’s present. Sunil and Sobah sat on the front stage while clusters of the bride’s family and friends came up to offer their gifts and well-wishes. An incredible, multi-course banquet served on banana leaves was held in the adjacent room after guests had met with the bride and groom. I stopped keeping track of time somewhere earlier in the week, so I have no clue how long this lasted, but I would venture to guess we ended up leaving there sometime around 2pm.
The second of the two receptions was hosted nearby our hotel (and Sunil’s home) at around 6pm. This reception was put on by Sunil’s family to offer their friends and family the opportunity to receive Sobah into their lives. The format was similar. The new couple sat on the fanciful couch, shook hands, and posed for countless photos with all the guests who then later filed into the adjacent hall for another banquet meal. So much amazing food! I only wish I had a little more appetite when presented with the food from each wedding feast.  

At the beginning of the first reception, the bride and groom were served a small token meal.


The CMC people representing! (L to R: Samson, never did catch this guy's name, Noble, Sunil, Sobah, Ashwin, Sneha)
Sunil and his bride with a good friend of Sunil's who traveled from Chennai for the wedding.
The first feast! (Sorry for the poor photo quality, lighting wasn't my friend in that room).
At the second reception. (Note the change of attire. Sobah's saree was incredible!) 
If Sunil doesn't watch out, this little charmer is going to steal is bride away!

The CMC gang at the second reception.
Sunil's sister with her son, Jonah. (I think that's his name... my memory is slipping)
I have no idea who these cuties are, but we entertained each other at the second reception. 
Sunil's beautiful family and then there is me. 
It was such an honor to be a part of this wedding day! To Sunil and Sobah, thank you so much for the opportunity to celebrate your union. I wish you both many years of happiness together.